BAD ENGINEERING IDEAS Home • Created 2021/12/7 • Updated 2022/8/2 • Read time 17min • Discord ______________________________________________________________________________________
This page contains projects we have either already attempted or will try to attempt in the future. I wanted to add content to this page like Bartosz Ciechanowski's but it's clear no one will do what he does better than he does, so I have instead worked on finding novel engineering solutions to problems or amusing experiments to run. Most of this page is just for fun, so don't get too concerned about the space nukes section. Computers for apocalypses. A fully mechanical, programmable, general computer that can store, read, and write hundreds of lines of data, survive extreme radiation, a thousand years in the dirt, and zero-G, all while fitting in the space of a bulky laptop. This was partly inspired by projects like CollapseOS, Rosetta Code, looking
over the Antikythera mechanism, and a desire for hyper-efficiency from blogs like Justine Tunney's. What happens when solar flares wipe out all unshielded electronics? What happens if the power grid is taken down for months at a time by China? What happens after a successful EMP attack on your nuclear submarine or in your spaceship? How do you make sure your computer will work after centuries of being placed on a shelf? While I make no illusions that a fully mechanical general computer will outperform the raw computational speed of a digital computer, we still need to significantly expand on the analogue systems we completely abandoned fifty years ago for the sake of surviving extinction-level events. A sentimental reason for wanting this could be simply the ability to hold a physical instantiate of a program in your hands. It would be the difference between holding a book and holding an e-reader, the e-reader will always be dogshit compared to the book. The long-lasting nature of it interests me as well. It would serve as an important artifact for future peoples to measure our competence by, as you could dig it up from the ground and have it still be in working order a thousand years later. So how do we build this? Babbage's difference engine and analytical engine were programmable, albeit in very limited fashion, but we want something more than a simple MDAS system. It would likely have relatively limited memory, relatively limited bus size, and so on, but enough to perform some otherwise advanced functions. We don't want to give in to the advantages of a relay computer here since electro-mechanical computers do not survive intense radiation bursts. We also don't want to make use of what I would call "hyper-analogue" computation like the MoNIAC since those would fail in zero-G. The good news is that almost every relevant mathematical operation you would care to carry out is well understood and easily implimented as an analogue mechanism, as this fire control computer shows. From single-mechanism MDAS'sAnalogue computation allows you to have multiple operation types in the same mechanism. E.g., addition and subtraction, of integers or floating points, can all be done with a single rack and pinion mechanism. Similarly with multiplication and division., mechanical integrators, differential analyzers, or exact pinwheel calculators like the CURTA. We can even use some neat tricks to make these functions more compact and accurate. Additionally, almost all parts could be miniaturized using watch-making techniques, but to survive being dropped or slammed, bulkier components in certain areas may be required. Either way, we should be able to get all calculation outputs within two significant figures without magnification and if near-microscopic laser'd markings are used in conjunction with a magnifying glass over the output area, we could probably get calculation outputs within five or more significant figures. On top of math operations, there would also be a dedicated space for mechanical logic operations. For inputs and programs, we could easily use bits/punches/sliders on solid cards, which then code for which operations the mechanical computer would perform. If card states code for choices of operations given a full instruction set, we now have a Turing-complete mechanical computer. The cards would feed into the computer just like paper ones would, but these cards are metal and the feed is manual. Let's say the cards are not so clunky or large, we could probably fit fifty instructions on a 5x3 inch card. The interesting bit about a fully manual computer like this is that just as a program can go forward in sequence, it can also go backwards in sequence by simply flipping the card around. You could step back through a program and reverse all operations. This means program cards double in function, as you can take known outputs and reverse the calculation to derive the inputs those outputs resulted from. Whatever the design we come up with, someone could use the same exact design but with better materials, meaning as long as the design is good then the wear on the materials is not a concern. Most of the gears would not have to come into contact with each other, you'd only be engaging one mechanical operation at a time and moving the mechanical output value of those operations between mechanisms, so the torque/binding would be incredibly low. This will probably never actually be done, but the fact that it's possible makes it a juicy enough target that the members of Diogenesis might end up tackling it one day.
We made a cosmic ray catcher and used it to gamble. Or at least we tried to. High energy particles from super novas sometimes slam into ram cards and flip a 1 to a 0. Odilitime wrote a script for me that detects these kind of bitflips in allocated memory space and we were betting on which half of the space a ray would pass through
first. The space was divided into two equally sized sections A and B, giving each a 50/50 chance of getting hit first. We even had a fancy image system that would swap out the alien head on snerx.com's landing page with a new image indicating if A or B was hit. IBM estimates that about one bitflip by cosmic ray happens per 256mb of data per month, so we allocated 500mb of ram to the cosmic ray catcher process and waited for a bitflip, expecting to see one in ~15 days. After three months with no observation we realized that modern ECC fully accounts for cosmic rays and would never allow us to observe the bitflip, which is really something we should have known beforehand but we were so caught up in the joke of taking a lofty and beautiful idea like stars exploding and using it for something base like gambling that we overlooked this obvious problem. We had ten friends betting on this cosmic ray catcher and very anti-climactically had to resolve the bet with a coin toss instead. It landed on tails. We will probably revisit this project in the future so we can actually use cosmic rays to gamble.
Using CIA research to generate visual binaurals. The famous-in-some-circles documentation the CIA boldly hosts in their virtual reading room on their research into a collection of projects they called the Gateway Process illuminates a great number of things, primarily that the CIA fully believes, and has invested millions of
dollars into, parapsychological spirit magic, but in a very serious and scientifically reproducible way that allows you, the layman, to astrally project too! This is only a half-joke because clicking the link above will make it very clear the CIA takes this very seriously, and further that very well known physicists and neuroscientists were either contracted directly or had their research used to carry out the Gateway Process projects. This is interesting for many other reasons as well, but what we in the Snerx project team have focused on is in trying to reproduce what the CIA calls a 'frequency following response' from 'hemi-sync', now known more commonly as a binaural beat. The CIA's documentation doesn't say anything controversial in this regard (even though it may have been controversial at the time of their research many decades ago), so it wouldn't be very worthy to try to reproduce this with audio - there are many videos on YouTube where you can hear and experience a binaural beat. Instead, what we want to do is see if we can generate a frequency following response that is trigged from visual phenomena instead of auditory phenomena. The way we plan on doing this is by taking two screens whose light is fully divided between each eye with no overlap, like in a VR headset, and modulating the refresh hertz and color projection to be within 30hz or lower of each other between the two eyes. We will try refresh hertz first, with one eye's screen running at 30hz and the other eye's screen at 60hz (or some similar combination), and if no response is observed, then we will try the color frequency differentials to see if that has an effect. What we expect to observe is a visual binaural akin to the auditory binaural experienced in a binaural beat, but instead of hearing the auditory illusion of a beat produced as a response to the hemispheres of your brain synchronizing the auditory stimuli, you should see the visual illusion of flashes produced as a response to the hemispheres of your brain synchronizing the visual stimuli. If we cannot find a way to produce a visual binaural in the same capacity that we can easily produce an auditory binaural, this would still be a useful experiment since it would tell us there is some special capacity that auditory sense has over the hemispheric synchronization of your brain in which visual sense does not.
A reified halting problem. Turing's famous halting problem has been proven undecidable but this was done a priori with logic rather than any kind of physical test or empirical instantiate. A Turing machine running the program described in the halting problem is something we could actually make, and further we could make two of them
with one seated inside the other just the same as Turing's description and then start their feeds and have one feed the other as described in the original description. What is interesting about this is that as soon as you start to describe this system physically, it becomes apparent that it is likely to behave differently than the purely abstract form of the system is concluded to behave as, since the physical system will in fact either loop infinitely or immediately halt. It is important to note that the physical looping would not be a recursive contradiction like in logic, since logical contradictions do not physically exist. I personally believe this will also help quasi-empirically (+) demonstrate a few other tangentially related things in mathematics, namely that second-order-logic is invented and not discovered and that Gödel's incompleteness is purely a symptom of math and not first-order-logic. Despite requiring very little money to do this physical test of the halting problem, I have not found a single person who has attempted this on the internet. I am probably just searching the wrong terms or something but really it should be totally trivial to return dozens of pages of this exact thing and yet when searching for it not a single result is immediately available. Even if other people have done this, it's worth doing again for the reasons stated in the last paragraph.
Exotic solutions to warfare in space. Joe Halderman's The Forever War is the greatest book on the difficulties of combat in space I've found and the main components of the novel aren't even about that. Halderman's sci-fi novel allusion to the Vietnam war presciently describes what the real enemy in space is - heat. The biggest concern with
space warfare is not an armed opponent, but heat dissipation. Unintuitively, it's really difficult to rapidly cool things in space and any kind of weapon system that generates heat (including your own body) needs to radiate the heat away faster than you fire the weapon or it will die, melt, and explode, and not necessarily in that order. Heat transference happens three ways: convection, induction, and radiation. Convection is when free atoms like gases or liquids bump into an object and transfer some of its energy, which doesn't apply to space since space is a vacuum. Induction is when heat energy transfers between atoms that are bonded together like heat moving down a metal rod, and this doesn't work for most things in space either because you usually want the heat to leave the system entirely instead of being trapped in it and having a run-away heat problem. So all that's left for cooling things in space is radiation, where EM forces allow atoms to radiate energy away without having to directly transfer it to other atoms. The problem here is that this is generally much slower than the other two options. For any kind of space combat, with any kind of weapon system, you will be generating a lot of heat. Radiating that heat away would require large radiation fins (like the kinds you find on the sides of collocations) or something similar, and even then you still can't radiate heat faster than you would be generating it by using the weapon system, so what happens is you fire a few times and then have to wait for the weapon to cool down before you can fire it again. Lots of video games have mechanics like this for sci-fi railguns or similar weapons, and these games tend to accurately capture how annoying it is to use the real-life counterpart since you get very few uses of the weapon system before having to wait for cooldown in most cases. The solution I came up with is to just use conductive/convective transference to pipe the heat directly into the payload being delivered. So you just say fuck it to mitigating the heat imbalance and use it to your advantage by throwing it into the munitions you're going to send to the target anyways. This works in an obvious way with missiles since the missile can get as hot as you want, it won't matter if they melt as long as they are on the right path and far away from the firing system by the time they explode. Conductive and convective heat capture are also useful for optimizing sterling engines - something potentially useful for internal mechanical systems of the vehicle carrying the payload. Less obviously, this can also be used for temporary cloaking. True cloaking of a large craft is broadly considered impossible by most astrophysicists and mil tech designers because whatever wavelength of light you redirect typically amplifies the wavelengths around it. E.g., blocking visible light generates more infrared light since retaining visible light is adding energy as heat and heat is emitted as infrared. However, a way around this is to use it to your advantage like the weapon system I limned in the last paragraph. Yeah, you're going to be absorbing/generating a lot of heat, so just throw it into a metal or dense-material cube until the material cannot load any more heat without losing structural coherence and then eject the ultra-hot mass like a plasma flare or like a squid inking to run away. Doing it this way means you could technically absorb all light wavelengths across the theoretically observable spectrum and otherwise be completely invisible for however long the internal mass you're piping the heat to can maintain integrity (after which it would begin radiating more heat back than it can take in). There is also a ratio equation that could be derived where you can exactly calculate the max sustainable time of your cloak by relating the overall surface of your craft to the heat capacitance and mass of the object you're piping the craft's surface energy into. The only way you'd be visually detectable is when you eject the super-heated mass, to which you only need to clear a few seconds before being 'cloaked' again. You could also be spotted if flying close to a craft and between any stars it's observing, as you would be blotting out those stars. If you don't maintain radio silence you would be detected, much like a submarine is only stealthy when running silent. This is all to say that warp drives are real, aliens have already visited, it's absurd to think you need to pay taxes, no resource is ultimately scarce, the universe has no edge and neither does your mind, for to place a limit on thought is to think both sides of the limit. This world is abundantly expansive and inexhaustible; you will never run out of ways to amuse yourself or worthy ideas to explore so long as you task yourself with doing so. Get excited, be energized, do more.
Three insights from an engineering dream. I've mentioned on /skell that I often use my dreams to help me solve real mechanical problems. As described on that page, I do roughly half of my work while fully asleep at night. I had a dream this morning that gave me three insights into space engineering.
1. Scifi has lots of memes about zero-G vacuum welding, but for any substantial infrastructure built in/for space, we need a complete zero-G vacuum manufacturing line, from start to finish. This would also obviate problems like the ignition of atmosphere since welding/manufacturing outside your pressurized hull means it is substantially safer. 2. Both fission and fusion reactors, but primarily fusion, are not just power sources, but double in functionality as the precursors to atomic assembly - from dirt you can create gold - which means they will be a critical component of atomically-precise assembly and the crucial technology required for making all elements non-scarce. 3. There's an interesting distinction between mechanical artificial gravity and warped artificial gravity. Mechanical AG is like the gravity wheel (or the 'cigar') portrayed in most scifi conceptions, but this only gives you gravity in a very narrow area and requires a very large moving hull. Lots of things can break there and it would be relatively difficult to fix. Additionally, a mechanical AG would need to be so large (at least 1km in diameter) to maintain a uniform sense of gravity at your feet as well as your head, that the materials cost and assembly time becomes quickly infeasible if you want to make more than one of them. Warped AG on the other hand only requires the ground to be moving up at 1G of force inside a warp bubble with the warp field moving at 1G downwards. This warped AG creates a uniform 1G of downward force across all the space inside the warp bubble no matter how big or non-wheel-like the space is, and there are no moving parts. Additionally, it would appear to outside observers as if the space inside was staying still relative to them despite the fact that you are technically flying upwards inside the bubble.
Social network engineering. The former CTO of Coinbase wrote an article on how Elon Musk could effectively extort Twitter's staff by co-opting the userbase against them as described in this article. The idea is neat but I wonder why this can't be done by a third-party instead?
Someone independent of the Twitter deal could set up a secondary site and offer some coin for every user that posts a 'final' proof-of-exit post exactly as described in the linked article. Further, the more followers the account had, the more coin they could get, incentivizing the most active users to switch platforms. Why shouldn't we hold large social media platforms hostage like this? Honest question. Any platform that put up bounties like this against Twitter, or Instagram, or whatever other network would be able to hijack that network's userbase. Disallow advertising, force any recommended content to link to educational content from museums and universities, and you have effectively reset social media over night.